Licensing qualms.

Patented emotions by Nina Paley was translated into Hebrew and modern Greek. ♡ Copying is an act of love. Please copy.

Patented emotions by Nina Paley was translated into Hebrew and modern Greek. ♡Copyheart. Copying is an act of love. Please copy.

Choosing a license for one’s work sometimes opens up a can of worms. It forces one to consider questions beyond just sticking a CC icon at the bottom of the page.

Questions like: Does it matter that others might make money off my work without remunerating me? Does the fear of future enclosure by commercial entities surpass the desire to share as widely as possible? Why do I care about getting credit for my work? How much control do I wish to retain ? Given the inspiration gathered from various sources all along my life, can I honestly claim originality and ownership over ‘my’ work?

An apparently straight-forward choice of license, guided by deceivingly simple questions (do you want to allow derivatives? etc), launches you on a personal journey to look into these dilemmas and really start digging into the nature of creation, your own motivations for sharing, your fears.

Not everybody ends up documenting what I call the ‘qualms of licensing’ or the story of how they came to make certain trade-offs. Christina Hendricks did it at length on her blog. I recommend reading her successive positioning on non-commercial, share-alike and attribution which led to her licensing the texts of her blog under CC BY: you get the feeling that a lot of soul-searching went into these posts.

CC is non-commercial, right? Wrong!

But while we weigh our priorities against the reality of sharing online and compare the merits of the various open licenses, other dilemmas come to haunt us.

The whole point of open licenses is to enable downstream users to understand what they can and cannot do with a given piece of work. Yet confusion is rife and we too often see all the licenses lumped together, assimilated to non-commercial. In fact, it would be interesting to carry out a poll to find out how many people down your street know about creative commons. Out of those who declare an awareness of creative commons, how many think it only has to do with non-commercial activities? How many know the meaning of all the symbols?

Confronted with this issue around her film Sita sings the blues, Nina Paley went for a more radical expression of her desire to share. She waived all her copyright over the film using a CC0 license (no rights reserved) which, to her, is a way of refusing to let the law come between her and her audience:

CC-0 is as close as I can come to a public vow of legal nonviolence. The law is an ass I just don’t want to ride.

Here, openness is very much about letting go.

Copying is an act of love

In an attempt to keep the spirit of sharing alive beyond the legalese characteristic of licenses, Nina Paley went as far as to create her own license, called copyheart. Reasoning that the answer to legal problems does not lie in legal answers, she turned the problem on its head by speaking another language, the language of love:

Although we appreciate and use Free Licenses when appropriate, these aren’t solving the problems of copyright restrictions. Instead of trying to educate everyone on the complexities of copyright law, we’d rather make our intentions clear with this simple statement:

♡ Copying is an act of love. Please copy.

Could it really be that simple?

Are you: free / open / none of the above ?

Where I tinker with the notions of open and free: how are they different? how do they overlap?

Do we need a definition of ‘open’?

Last week in #whyopen, we reflected on the meaning of open as it relates to our lives and practise. After discussing our views on various online platforms, we asked ourselves whether we should try to define openness or leave the definition open.

On this issue, I agree with Pat Lockley who says:

Defining is hard, as we have come to realise during last week’s exercise. Yet, most of us in the discussion felt that we needed to come to a common understanding of the term ‘open’ so as to be able to rally around it. If we have no clear benchmark for what open is, how can anyone decide if something is open or otherwise?

Defining ‘open’ sounds all the more crucial that we are confronted with arguments raging back and forth between free culture and open culture.

Free is absolute

Comparing two possible definitions of free content and open content, I find ‘free’ more uncompromising a label than ‘open’. Whereas an artifact is either free or not free, it can be more or less open.

Open is a more flexible concept, that allows for a continuum of positions within the realm of openness:

Content is open to the extent that its license allows users to engage in the 4R activities [4R: reuse, revise, remix, redistribute]. Content is less open to the extent that its license places restrictions (e.g., forbidding derivatives or prohibiting commercial use) or requirements (e.g., mandating that derivatives adopt a certain license or demanding attribution to the original author) on a user’s ability to engage in the 4R activities.

This difference is clearly spelt out on the Free cultural works wiki:

We discourage you to use other terms to identify Free Cultural Works which do not convey a clear definition of freedom, such as “Open Content” and “Open Access.” These terms are often used to refer to content which is available under “less restrictive” terms than those of existing copyright laws, or even for works that are just “available on the Web”.

Is free the extreme end of open, the most radical stance? Conversely, is openness a diluted version of free culture?

Differing ideologies

In an interview with Forbes, free software advocate Richard Stallman posed an ideological grounding for free culture which is opposed to the more pragmatic approach he attributes to the proponents of open source:

Where we differ from the proponents of open source is in what those goals are. The open source viewpoint cites only practical-convenience goals, such as making software powerful and reliable. Our primary goals are freedom and community. We appreciate convenience too, of course, but we do not put that above freedom.

So, essentially, open source people are sell-outs who abandoned the fight for freedom in favour of … convenience!

I’m not sure that everybody championing openness fits the portrait of practically-minded people with not an idealist’s bone in them. Both open source and free software advocates strive against proprietary software: they just don’t agree on the means to do that or indeed on the priorities of the movement.

This is as far as I’ve gone in my reflection on open vs. free. Admittedly a bit scant, but I hope I’ll be able to deepen my reflection as the days go by and the discussion progresses.

Artists embracing openness

What does it mean for an artist to be open? What are the benefits of open practice ? Why do some artists think it’s important? I look at 3 examples of artists who have embraced openness – albeit on their own terms.

Open by Kim Manley Ort licensed CC BY-NC-ND.

Open by Kim Manley Ort under CC BY-NC-ND license.

The painter

Painter Gwenn Seemel argues that an art piece is a technique, an idea and a person all wrapped into a unique piece of work. Someone may copy the technique and the idea but they can never replace the person who created the original work. In other words, let the copiers copy because they can never pretend to be you. Rather, they’ve already created something new !

In a blog post, she talks about her evolving ideas on copyright and how she came to align her practice with her convictions. After years of keeping “a copyright symbol at the bottom of each page of [her] website”, Gwenn Seemel took a stance in favour of free culture in 2009 by releasing her work directly in the public domain for all to copy, display and remix. Now, instead of the usual ‘c in a buble’, it is a smiley face that stands before her name.

She explains what motivated her to abandon her copyright :

I did this because I don’t believe that it’s possible to moderate the use of my images and, more to the point, I don’t believe that I have the right to do so. What I do believe in is making work that’s so original that no matter where people see it, they’ll know it’s mine.

It took her several years to move from sharing how she works and engaging personally with people who are interested in her art to completely letting go of copyright and changing her approach to making a living as an artist:

The writer

Also in 2009, author Leo Babauta made up his mind to ‘uncopyright‘ his blog Zen habits as well as his ebook ‘Zen to done‘. Before then, he used to grant limited rights for non-commercial reuse of his work, upon request.

He examined the benefits of increased exposure in an article for Write to Done:

Last year I Uncopyrighted my blog, Zen Habits, and my ebook, Zen To Done, and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. People have used my articles in blogs, newsletters, magazines, ebooks, books and more. And yes, they’ve made profits off me without me getting any of that money … but at the same time, I’ve benefitted: my ideas have spread, my name and brand have spread, and my readership has grown and grown. Since I Uncopyrighted the blog, it has grown from about 30K subscribers to 113K.

Like Gwenn Seemel, Leo Babauta does not consider the loss of potential royalties to be a major problem, since a writer can find alternative ways of making money (hopefully without taking up odd jobs, that is…). He suggests giving talks and conferences, selling ads or branded goods and, most obvious of all, selling books even without a copyright attached to them.

The underlying idea informing Babauta’s shift to ‘uncopyright’ was that no writing is entirely original because all creators draw from a variety of sources of inspiration. If we all copy to some extent, then why claim ownership over the particular arrangement we created ? Let others in turn be inspired by us for art to flourish.

He argues that releasing copyright is not only good for the community who benefits from engaging with an artist’s work but it’s also good for the writer’s reach, exposure and reputation. According to Leo Babauta, inducing artificial scarcity through copyright is not the solution to be successful as a writer:

By protecting your copyright, you are putting up barriers for the spread of your ideas. In this digital age, that is a mistake, plain and simple.

The DJ

My husband is a DJ and I’ve seen him grow from a passionate amateur to a full-fledged professional. His sense of ownership over his work has greatly changed in the process.

When he started out, he would distribute mixtapes on CD to grow his network and make a bit of money on the side. This gave him some exposure and motivated him to constantly improve his output.

As it happens, he got copied. Back then, it really upset him that someone had misappropriated a mix he had taken hours to put together by simply sticking their name on the cover and writing over the DJ drops. He basically felt robbed of his work.

What he came to realise though, was that these copies did not actually take away anything from him. He did not lose any clients, his skills were intact, and his reputation kept growing despite or maybe thanks to imitation. In fact, some of his fans were already copying the CDs for friends  but they would also notify him if another DJ tried to pass his mixes as theirs!

If anything, this episode challenged him to continue creating better and better mixes. His raw materials for mixing were other people’s musical creations after all…

Eventually, he turned to live shows as a main source of income and continued distributing mixtapes, for free this time. Opening his work to a larger audience online enabled him to receive more feedback and increase his following. Perhaps even more crucial to his professional development has been a network of DJs around the world who critique each other’s creations and share anything from technical tips to equipment reviews. This kind of respectful peer-to-peer support is invaluable.

Partial conclusion

Free culture has to do with opening up a space for interaction between the artist and their audience. New economic models in the art business thus emphasise the value of community-building, understood as bringing together people who are interested in a dialogue around an artist’s work and who might be willing to support further creation.


Is open practice a very marginal point of view in the art world? I got to hear about Gwenn Seemel through a post shared on Calimaq’s Facebook page. It might be that my perspective is skewed by the networks I am involved in.